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Art is . . . what?


ISun Tsu, “The Art of War” in Tangu script

Some words cover more ground than others, and “art” is among those in candidacy for ‘onamatoid’ status as a word that means so many things that it is practically meaningless. Etymology doesn’t help, because people don’t refer to word origins before using them in ordinary, or even extraordinary, language, and really nice words like “art” get appropriated to mean whatever it pleases the speaker to have them mean. Googling “The art of” results in six hundred and sixty-three million hits including Sun Tsu’s “The Art of War,” “The Art of Shaving” and Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal.”

The question “What is Art?” can be answered declaratively with “Art is . . .,” or conversely with “Art is not . . .” For the ancient Greeks art was that which was not nature, and for us art is often seen as that which is not science, but it is notable that many non-Western languages have no word for art at all, and that Chinese civilization survived without a word for aesthetics until early in the last century. Rather than account for the six hundred and sixty-three million ways to end the sentence “Art is . . .,” each of us can generate a core list of some familiar definitions.

Art is beauty
Art is self-expression
Art is communication
Art is social protest
Art is glory to God
Art is glory to the State
Art is entertainment
Art is the mirror of nature
Art is a window on the soul
Art is therapy

We could each pick one definition from our list and then argue to the death that art is that particular thing and nothing else, or apply a conflict-resolution strategy to the dilemma of having too many definitions. Rather than suffer those many deaths we could agree that art is actually all of those things, and more, and look for definition on a step above the contents of our lists by asking “what is the same about all of these items that may result in a more meaningful sharpening of our understanding of art?”

As an artist writing about art I choose the visual meaning of definition as sharpening of perception rather than the literal definition concerning the verbal explanation of meaning such as might appear in a dictionary. Dr. David W. Ecker, a contemporary artist and scholar, provided a useful intellectual maneuver in this regard in a paper delivered at Wayne State University on October 28, 1961 titled “The Artistic Process as Qualitative Problem Solving.” He outlined the philosophical and historical basis for his assertion about the artistic process that “The artist utilizes qualitative method to arrange the qualitative means toward qualitative ends.” Our understanding of art is therefore sharpened by observing that this process can be applied to the suffix of all of the above sentences, and is therefore super-ordinate to them all despite their diversity. Conflict is thereby resolved, and mayhem replaced by peace.

Ecker went on to say that “Qualitative problem solving is, as Dewey insisted of scientific inquiry, not a neat progression of steps but a single, continuous means-ends progression, sometimes hesitating, halting, groping; it may be rethought, move forward again, start over, in short, it is experimental behavior.” Beauty, self-expression, communication, etc., are all objectives sought to be achieved by artistic process. The decision-making that goes into each case of deciding what materials to use and how they should be used represents the qualitative means toward different qualitative ends.

This maneuver solves other problems. A bad work of art is therefore one that does not solve the problem addressed, or does so poorly, enabling one to identify and judge a work of art only if the problem addressed is known. It is a surprisingly contentious assertion to suggest that appreciating art requires the perceiver to know something, and particularly so when it is suggested that one must know something to recognize an object or event as a work of art at all, but the existential problem of asserting that “art is . . .,” “and is nothing else,” is averted by the use of “as,” leaving open reasonable alternative explanations.

Interestingly, no particular form of art is implied by the observation of artistic process as the use of qualitative methods to arrange the qualitative means toward qualitative ends. There are no “arts,” but different forms of “art,” hopefully helping to resolve the “onamatoid” status of the word. There are, however, other important words which are less fortunate, such as “imagination” and “creativity” that are good candidates for that status as their uses and definitions expand to mean whatever a speaker might please, thereby leaving ample room for future articles and discussion of “onamatoids.” 

David W. Ecker, “The Artistic Process as Qualitative Problem Solving.” Paper read at the annual meeting of the ASA, held at Wayne State University on October 28, 1961. It was subsequently published as follows:

Reprinted in Readings In Art Education (ed. Eisner and Ecker). (Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1966) pp. 468.

also reprinted in Contemporary Aesthetics, Matthew Lippman, ed., Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1973, pp. 407-15. )

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